Sri Lanka require one run to win
It's only on exceptionally rare occasions that cricket makes me nervous. I don't support any particular Test side, and while I usually would prefer one of the teams on the field to win it's never so important as to cause much disappointment when they don't. Before the arrival of the World Twenty20, Ireland only played in a major tournament once every four years, and expectation was always so low that any defeat was greeted with a shrug of the shoulders, with any victory a wholly unexpected surprise. Of course, there were times when the tension of the situation completely took over- most notably in the thrilling tied ODI against Zimbabwe in 2007- but such circumstances were few and far between and only set in late in the game. Unlike in football, where I'll regularly run through each of my fingernails ten times over before the game has even begun, there was never a prolonged build-up of nerves in eager anticipation of an upcoming match.
Until now, that is. For one of the perks of the significant improvement in Ireland's cricketing fortunes is that, now, the team have a certain degree of expectation behind them. Those who haven't been following Associate cricket may not be aware, but since their remarkable campaign in the Caribbean, Ireland have won the Intercontinental Cup and the 2011 World Cup Qualifiers and shared the Twenty20 qualifiers with the Netherlands, cementing their place as the "best of the rest", so to speak. Having been drawn against Bangladesh, Ireland's chances of an upset were being talked up so much in non-Test playing circles that it barely would have qualified as an upset at all. More in hope than expectation, I ordered a ticket to Nottingham for the game, safe in the knowledge that even if we lost heavily there would at least be a game between two top-quality sides in Australia and Sri Lanka afterwards to make the trip worthwhile.
It was, quite simply, the best day of cricket I've ever experienced.
No sooner had I boarded the train than the nerves set in. It's hard to overstate how big a game this was for Irish cricket- we can't just look to the next series if we lose, it could be years before we have another chance this good to make an impression on the world stage. I met some Bangladesh fans on the train- the first of many fantastically friendly people I encountered during the day- and they talked enthusiastically about their team's chances. By the time we got to the ground, it was just starting to grow busy.
It was a bright but cloudy day. My first impression of the ground was how fantastic my seat was. Directly above the media centre at the Radcliffe Road end, I could see all the action unfold perfectly. News filtered in that Ireland had won the toss and would bowl- a great toss to win, given the overhead conditions- and the ground trembled with anticipation.
An inspired opening spell of bowling from Trent Johnston backed up by some tight bowling from the spinners and a remarkable stumping from Niall O'Brien put Ireland firmly on top early on. Bangladesh fans- who significantly outnumbered the Irish- enthusiastically cheered on their team, despite growing increasingly frustrated by some irresponsible batting. It was not to last. In the final over, Mashrafe Mortaza smashed twenty runs off Alex Cusack to propel Bangladesh to an eminently defendable 137. In a blurry of fierce hitting, Ireland had gone from seemingly home to in for a very tricky chase. Not only that, but O'Brien, our best batsman, had landed on his ankle trying to complete a run-out and was visibly in a lot of pain. The dull, nervous pain in the pit of my stomach was back just in time for the innings break.
What followed was the most gut-wrenching period of the game. Mortaza, buoyed by his impressive performance with the bat, was charging in from the far end and unleashing some hostile, dangerous bowling. Our openers seemed powerless to resist as one ball after another was played at and missed, while I desperately tried to ascertain whether there'd been a nick. The Bengali fans were up for it now too, and every ball was greeted by the majority of the crowd with a huge roar. In the third over, Jeremy Bray was caught at cover point after being judged to have inside-edged a length delivery onto his pad. The crowd went wild; the pressure on the incoming batsman had become unbearable. At 6/1 after almost three overs, 138 seemed a long way away and all the momentum was with the Bangas.
No one had told Niall O'Brien, though. From the moment he limped to the crease, Ireland were on top. Mashrafe Mortaza, who had previously seemed absolutely unplayable, was hit for three sixes by O'Brien in his third over. He then went after the spinners, leading Ireland to 47/1 after six overs, well ahead of the required rate. He eventually holed out to long-on for 40, but it was too late for Bangladesh- he had already changed the match.
That's not to say my nerves were now settled. On the contrary, the next few overs were excruciating to watch, as Ireland desperately tried to escape the clutches of the four-pronged Bengali spin attack. The runs stopped coming, as Gary Wilson and John Mooney struggled to find the middle of the bat. Mortaza was brought back on in the fifteenth over, and Wilson mistimed his second ball- a slower one- straight to Mohammed Ashraful cover. Ashraful roared and threw the ball high into the afternoon sky. Bangladesh were still in this game. Unfortunately for them, Ireland's next batsman was Kevin O'Brien, Niall's brother and a renowned big hitter. Emulating his brother, he took Shakib Al Hasan and Rubel Hossain apart to see Ireland home with ten balls to spare, finishing on 39* off 17 balls.
When he crashed the winning runs over mid-on, I got a little excited. Actually, I don't think I stopped screaming with joy for about ten minutes, and eyewitnesses noted that I didn't stop smiling until well into the next day. Nothing could possibly have ruined my day after that. The impressive stadium was now covered in glorious sunshine, and I stood there with a tall, cold pint of beer in my hand having just watched all the action unfold from the best seat in the house. How could a cricketing moment ever get any better? Never mind cricket, how could life ever get any better?
The gods of cricket seemingly took this as a challenge. My nerves having finally calmed down, I could relax and really enjoy some top-class cricket in the next game- Australia were playing Sri Lanka. The Australian fans were heavily outnumbered, and Bangladesh fans (who, to their credit, remained fantastically friendly in spite of their side's defeat) naturally took up supporting Sri Lanka for the second match. Of course, the local English fans were always happy to see an Australian defeat, and the pro-Sri Lankan feeling inside the ground was so strong that I considered following Australia for the match purely out of sympathy. Sri Lanka are my favourite test-playing team, so I thought better of it.
David Warner departed for a duck in the first over, and the crowd went wild. Shane Watson and Ricky Ponting did an excellent rebuilding job until the latter was bowled by Ajantha Mendis's legendary carrom ball- which looks so much like an off-break you can barely believe which way it's turned. Mendis went on to take out Watson, lbw playing a sweep shot. Lasith Malinga then completely foxed Brad Haddin with a slower ball and Isuru Udana removed Michael Clarke with a stunning caught-and-bowled. Some excellent late order hitting, notably from Mitchell Johnson, propelled Australia to 159. No one could quite figure out how they had managed such a decent total- they'd been well and truly outplayed for practically the whole innings. I was fascinated. I'd never seen bowling of anywhere near this quality close-up before.
It didn't matter though, as Sri Lanka chased down Australia's total quite comfortably on the back of Tillakaratne Dilshan's flamboyant half-century, most notable for the deployment of his very own "paddle over the keeper's head" shot. Ricky Ponting copped massive abuse from the stands, not because he's a hate figure for fans of Sri Lanka, but because, "his name is easiest to shout." Kumar Sangakkara overcame some late nerves to see his side home with five balls remaining, and the crowd celebrated with all the joy and enthusiasm of myself just a few hours earlier. The Sri Lankan fans, like those from Bangladesh, were great fun and only added to the carnival atmosphere throughout the stadium. I stayed until well after the game had finished, basking in the glory of thousands of fans.
I boarded the last train back to Manchester, meeting the same group of fans I'd spoken with on the way to the game. They were disappointed, but full of congratulations for Ireland and vowing to support them for the remainder of the tournament. I chatted with them about the matches and cricket in general, while the whole carriage chanted light-heartedly at four Australian fans unlucky enough to have sat in a train with a truckload of English fans.
It'll be next summer before I get to another game of international cricket. I suspect it'll be a lot longer than that before I enjoy a day of cricket as much as I did this one.